Vanya (Kolya Spiridonov) is a six-year-old boy who lives with many other boys in a run-down Russian orphanage. The headmaster (Yuri Itskov) is overwhelmed by the challenges of taking care of these children, most of whom were abandoned by their parents. Kolyan (Denis Moiseenko) really runs things in the place, operating as the underground leader of a gang. He takes money from the orphans who work for him, including Vanya who washes cars at a gas station for a tip.
One of the brightest moments in the lives of these bedraggled and lonely children comes when "Madam" (Maria Kuznetsova) shows up with parents who want to adopt a child. She is actually a baby broker operating illegally and making a lot of money satisfying the needs of wealthy Europeans in search of a child.
Vanya is fortunate enough to be chosen by a rich Italian couple who immediately fall in love with him. The other orphans are jealous of his good fortune to be given a chance for a better life. But Vanya is not so sure. He meets the distraught birth mother of a boy who has just been adopted by foreign parents. She is filled with guilt and, shortly after talking with Vanya, commits suicide. With great determination and energy, he sets out to find his own birth mother no matter what it takes.
First, he needs to learn to read. He convinces Irka (Olga Shuvalova), a feisty orphan who earns money as a prostitute, to teach him. After breaking into the headmaster's office to steal his records, Vanya escapes from the orphanage and begins his quest to make contact with his birth mother.
Based on a true story, The Italian is the official Russian entry in the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. Director Andrei Kravchuk has made a gritty and unsentimental film about a stubborn and plucky little boy who is sets out a journey that involves risk, danger, and disappointment. It doesn't seem to faze him in the least.
Irka helps Vanya escape from the orphanage but runs into problems with the police when she is caught stealing. The Madam is shocked to discover that the boy has jeopardized her deal with the Italians. She and her security guard and personal driver prove to be resourceful trackers of the young boy. Vanya is beaten and robbed by some tough kids who live on the streets, but he is also helped by several people. His story reminds us of how sad it is that so many children in the world have been deprived of the parental love and the nurturing that most of us take for granted.